As ever, wondering why magical realism is a subset of fantasy
“In ‘The Hummingbird’s Daughter,’ [Urrea’s] epic third novel, he marries this journalistic tenacity (the book took 20 years of research) to a highly coloured poetic lyricism to tell the story of his ancestor, Teresa Urrea, a popular ‘saint’ whose name became a rallying cry of the Mexican Revolution in the late 19th century.”
“‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ [is] an enchanted place that does everything but cloy. Macondo oozes, reeks and burns even when it is most tantalizing and entertaining. It is a place flooded with lies and liars and yet it spills over with reality.”
Considering the genres in simple terms, magical realism takes place in the real world; fantasy takes place in a world that is not real. Magical realism stories include magic in an otherwise very realistic setting in which the characters believe the magic is as actual as tables, chairs and mountains; in fantasy, the magic is often viewed as something out of the ordinary or as part of an out-of-the-ordinary realm or world.
I won’t solve the magical-realism-as-a-subset-of-fantasy debate here. Instead, I thought I’d post two excerpts as illustrations of magical realism, the first from The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005) by Luis Alberto Urrea, and the second, from One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez. Those who have read both will remember that the land and its magic has a very strong focus in these novels as do the indigenous cultures that reside in those places.
Here’s the Urrea excerpt:
“Cayetana greeted that dawn with a concoction made with coffee beans and burned corn kernels. As the light poured out of the eastern sea and splashed into windows from coast to coast, Mexicans rose and went to their million kitchens and cooking fires to pour their first rations of coffee. A tidal wave of coffee rushed west across the land, rising and falling from kitchen to fire ring to cave to ramada. Some drank coffee from thick glasses. Some sipped it from colorful gourds, rough clay pots that dissolved as they drank, cones of banana leaf. Café negro. Café with canela. Café with goat’s milk. Café with a golden-brown cone of piloncillo melting in it like a pyramid engulfed by a black flood. Tropical café with a dollop of sugarcane rum coiling in it like a hot snake. Bitter mountaintop café that thickened the blood. In Sinaloa, café with boiled milk, its burned milk skin floating on top in a pale membrane that looked like the flesh of a peeled blister. The heavy-eyed stared into the round mirrors of their cups and regarded their own dark reflections. And Cayetana Chávez, too, lifted a cup, her coffee reboiled from yesterday’s grounds and grits, sweet with spoons of sugarcane syrup, and lightened by thin blue milk stolen with a few quick squeezes from one of the patrón’s cows.
“On that long westward morning, all Mexicans still dreamed the same dream. They dreamed of being Mexican. There was no greater mystery.”
One of the hallmarks of magical realism is the inclusion of magical and/or metaphorical images and events as real in a real setting (as opposed to a fantasy world where reality itself is different). In this case, the sunlight is splashing into windows and coffee is rushing across the landscape. In a realistic book, such passages would be preceded by words such as “as though,” as in, “it was as though a tidal wave of coffee rushed west…” We’re also introduced to the idea, again presented as actual, that a single dream resides in everyone’s heart. The author doesn’t qualify this or otherwise reduce it to opinion or possibility.
Here’s the Márquez excerpt:
“A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.
“Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted.”
It is difficult to read the tidal wave if coffee passage without thinking of the trickle of blood passage even if you haven’t read One Years of Solitude since it first came out. Here again, the river of blood isn’t metaphor, it’s actual. In fact, its reality is, so to speak, anchored into the text by the very specific description of the route it took from the living room to Úrsula’s kitchen. And then, had it been a metaphor, Úrsula wouldn’t have reacted to it. This passage is, of course, a well-known example of what makes magical realism different from realism. What makes it different from fantasy is the fact that in fantasy, some sorcerer or wizard would be creating the event and even within a fantasy world where magical beings existed, the characters wouldn’t accept a sudden trail of blood as actual unless there were a cause behind its occurrence.
In a single and relative brief post, no one can do justice to the plots, characters, places and wonders of these two powerful books. My idea here is to offer a little food for thought for anyone who finds it difficult to see magical realism as a distinct gene.